Mad Max: Fury Road is a triumph of visual, symbolic storytelling.
There is an absolute minimum of spoken language in this movie, and George Miller uses almost exclusively visual language to explain things. In the first half hour of the movie this is amazingly well done. The stunning thing is that the first half hour is not only a dazzling start of non-stop brutal action, but the information about the world of Mad Max is introduced at the same time: the scarcity of water, the strict gender roles, and ritualistic society and the whole lay-out of the stronghold. There is a very high density of information being communicated in a very economical way.
I want to stress this point. George Miller removed as much dialogue as was possible, leaving the storytelling only to the visuals. Consider for example the first scenes of Max and Furiosa together. There is no talking. Max still has this mask on his face and he fights Furiosa. The whole scene is performed in gestures and body language. The visuals tell us that they’re evenly matched, and when the enemy approaches, they need each other. This sets up the balance of power between the two characters for the rest of the film. Furiosa finally talks and tries to convince Max with moral arguments to stop, but only when she asks “do you want that mask off your face?” does Max halt, showing us that he is purely a pragmatic person trying to survive.
All of this could have been explained in dialogue, but that isn’t the way of the film. Just about every piece of information is communicated this way. If you do not recognize this visual storytelling and you are waiting for spoken cues, the movie may seem simple or bland, but it isn’t. It is rich and elegant in silent symbolic language. It is pregnant with meaning and invites reflection. The sparse talk too is mostly indirect. At one point, Max tells Furiosa: “If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.” This isn’t just a generalization but a direct reflection on both their psychological struggles, but the movie doesn’t spell it out for you.
The same symbolic storytelling is present whenever women are on the screen. They all have very clearly defined roles in the movie’s world as milk or baby producers. And men too, as disposable fighters or bloodbags. Only the runners in the truck throw off those roles, including Furiosa and Max of course. They are the only real individuals. Everyone else, both the women and the warriors, have proscribed functions. You could even see Max’s mask as a symbol of a social mask; a role. In the end, he reattaches his blood tube to save Furiosa, but this time by his own choice, signifying that the freedom of choice is the difference between a forced role and an expression of personhood. Fittingly, it is also the moment when he mentions his own name.
When the only visible women in the world are a little group, huddled together in a truck, it’s hard not to interpret their actions and choices as symbolic or representative of womanhood in general, and I think that was Miller’s intention too. And Miller’s interpretation is that they are a diverse bunch. The group of women together have different ethnicities and different personalities and are through that diversity a representation of the whole. One of them is dismissive and angry, blaming men for the destruction of the world. Another is scared and tries to run back to the warriors, hoping for their understanding and acceptance. A third one develops a crush on one of the warboys and sees through his faulty religion to the suffering person underneath (and him being redeemed through love).
Later in the movie, the symbolism around nature continues. In one scene, they ruin the last vestiges of nature (“we’ll use that thing” “it’s a tree”) to pull technology forwards (the truck). Or consider Max wiping off blood with mother’s milk, as a bringer of death who rejuvenates himself with life-giving liquid.
Besides all this, Mad Max: Fury Road is quite beautiful, highly entertaining and exciting, and has iconic scenes, lines and characters. The windswept deserts show every color of yellow and orange in the setting sun. The action is gripping and involving, with some of the best action scenes of the past ten years. The little speech there is, is very quotable, and the characters have very memorable visual appearances.
It is nearly October now in honestly a bit disappointing year for movies. But even if The Avengers 2, Terminator 5, Mission Impossible 5 and all the rest had been better, it would still have been my favorite movie of the year so far.